Fifteen games into his coaching tenure, Mike Sanford is faced with a new wave of doubt and criticism after his team’s most-recent loss.
The 36-year-old coach is now 6-9 after starting his career 5-2. But more concerning is Western Kentucky’s 1-7 mark in its last eight games, its current four-game losing streak and, above all else, a 31-28 loss at home to Maine in which WKU allowed 31 straight points after building a 21-0 lead.
For a program that has fielded a bowl eligible team for seven straight years and recently won back-to-back conference titles while cracking the nation’s top 25 at one point, things have suddenly taken a turn for the worst. And much of the blame has fallen – as it often does – on the head coach.
“Me as a coach, I love this challenge,” Sanford said Monday. “I love going back to the drawing board after a tough game and finding solutions. It’s what we live for. That’s our whole staff – we live for finding solutions to the problems.
“You can’t mourn for more than 24 hours so you gotta cut all the negative noise out and keep everything positive moving forward and protect your players. And just be honest. Be honest about what you saw on the film and then also realize that they’re our most-important assets, is our players. They’re the most-important pieces.”
There were blips of negative noise last year in Sanford’s maiden voyage after his first team fell to 6-7 – the program’s first losing season since 2010 – by dropping five of its final six and turning in an uninspired performance in a Cure Bowl defeat to Georgia State. But most, if not all, first-year coaches usually get a pass when taking over a program and that noise trickled off into the distance.
And even after Western’s opening week loss to No. 6 Wisconsin there was a glimmer of hope due to WKU’s ability to rush for 124 yards against the Badgers and moved the ball to the red zone four times (even though the Tops scored just three points in those trips). But hope is now in short supply – outside of the locker room, anyway.
Those negative-type noises? Well they’re only getting louder.
“I think it’s really important to us to place the most value on what’s being said inside our own walls, both on this campus and in that football facility,” Sanford said. “I’m not gonna lie, there are times during the season where that (social media) thing gets deleted from all devices. If anything else it just helps us to keep laser focused on what’s important – and that’s preparing for Louisville right now.”
Western Kentucky’s running backs coach is Sanford’s father, Mike Sanford Sr. Sanford Sr. has been in coaching for more than 40 years and has been a head coach twice – at Nevada Las Vegas from 2005-09 and at Indiana State from 2013-16.
The elder Sanford gave his son his first coaching job in 2005 as a graduate assistant at UNLV.
“There are times where he wants to talk, there’s time where he doesn’t wanna talk. That’s his prerogative,” Sanford Sr. said of the current climate. “But I feel great about the direction of where everything’s going. Obviously we’re all very disappointed with what happened in the game. We have all have a belief that the future is very bright.
“I think he’s handled it really well. He’s focusing on our team, the people in the building and the coaching staff – and we’ve got a lot of positive things going on. And he’s done a really good job, I think, of setting the course as he needs to do as a head coach, that we need to focus on what’s going on in the building and what’s going on on our team, what’s going on in practice and to focus on the next play. Not look at everything in the entirety but just keep your head down and focus on the next play.”
Sanford Jr. is not the first coach to struggle early in his tenure – the list of coaches who had less-than stellar starts to their career before turning the corner is exhaustive. And given Sanford has 10 games remaining this season and 2+ years remaining on his contract, there’s ample time for the former Boise State quarterback and Notre Dame offensive coordinator to turn things around.
But he knows it better be sooner than later.
“I also do know that when you’re hired as a head football coach, particularly in 2018 – to whom much is given much is expected. I took this job with knowing that full well,” Sanford said. “I’ve been around this game my entire life. There’s nothing that surprises me. I’ve heard everything that could possibly be said about my own dad in the stands. And I lived with that as a child. That doesn’t make it easy for my family, my kids, but at the end of the day, we signed up for this.
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop